A Q&A With Professor Ben Birkinbine: What did you research this summer?
Ever wonder what your professors are up to during the summer months? Well, a little bit of everything from vacation to research to passion projects. Professor Ben Birkinbine gives some insight into the research he did this summer in London, England.
Q: Could you tell me a little bit about your research over the summer? What was the main question? What’s the most interesting thing you discovered?
A: My research over the summer was aimed at revisiting some of the foundational theories that underpinned my dissertation research. Those theories were specifically associated with the concept of “the commons,” which has a rich intellectual history. In addition, there have been some really exciting developments in this area. My research fellowship was an opportunity to engage with these new developments as a way to update and expand the ways that these theories can be applied to my work.
Q: Does it have any implications in the classroom, newsroom and beyond?
A: Absolutely. The commons offers a new way of conceptualizing social development in many fields (in both material resources like natural resources or agricultural goods, but also immaterial resources like knowledge and information — therefore, news and information). In short, the commons forces us to think beyond development that occurs from either the principles of the free market or state provision. It recognizes the limitations of this binary approach to development, and it highlights the ways that local communities can negotiate their relationships to each other as well as their environment and its resources.
Q: Will you be continuing with this work, or will did it inspire any new research questions?
A: Yes, one of the primary reasons I wanted to revisit these theories is because I’m in the early stages of working on a solo-authored book proposal. The book will draw from my dissertation work, but I want it also to reflect more up-to-date theories and empirical findings.
Q: How do you feel this can contribute to the overall media landscape?
A: This project (and my dissertation research) was specifically focused on free and open source software. The tools and technologies developed from within this community have a dramatic impact on the way we interact with digital technologies, whether we realize it or not. For example, most estimates suggest that Linux (an open-source operating system) currently has about a 90% market share in the supercomputing market. These massive computers play an important role in powering the internet and facilitating the transfer and storage of data. A lot more could be said about the importance of open-source software, but I’ll leave it there. I’m happy to expand, if you like.
Q: What initially interested you in this topic?
A: In July of 2011, I attended the Open Source Convention or OSCON in Portland, OR. Simply by being at the conference and walking around the exhibition room, I was offered three jobs by employers who told me, “we’re looking for people like you.” And these were not small hipster startups; they were Facebook, the New York Times, and the U.S. Government. This experience piqued my interest in free and open source software. I wanted to know why so many powerful companies were so interested in free and open source software. Again, a lot more to be said here, but I will leave it here for now.
Q: Looking toward the coming school year, what are you most looking forward to?
A: My experience in London really energized me for working on some new research projects. Part of that will be putting together a book proposal, as I mentioned earlier, but I will also be working on some other new projects.